The Age of Strategic Instability

The Age of Strategic Instability

  • How Novel Technologies Disrupt the Nuclear Balance

For decades, American policymakers and military planners have focused on preserving what is known in the nuclear lexicon as “strategic stability.” During the Cold War, especially as mutual assured destruction became accepted logic between the United States and the Soviet Union, the pursuit of strategic stability provided a framework for managing the existential risks associated with massive nuclear arsenals. Under conditions of strategic stability, each superpower recognized that its adversary could massively retaliate against a nuclear first strike—which created a disincentive to resorting to nuclear weapons. Preserving confidence that each side had a “second-strike capability” thus became essential. And even with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, strategic stability has continued to structure thinking among policymakers and planners about how to create predictability in the nuclear relationship and reduce incentives to escalation.

Yet as the quest for strategic stability has continued to guide defense planning and arms control, it has become increasingly untethered from technological and geopolitical realities. Since 2011, tensions have been mounting in the U.S.-Russian relationship, giving rise to the very real possibility that some combination of deliberate actions, misunderstandings, miscalculations, and accidents could lead to nuclear escalation and catastrophe. After several decades of rules, agreements, norms, and human relationships fostering prudent behavior and shrinking nuclear arsenals—from the Cold War peak of more than 70,000 warheads, each side now retains between 6,000 and 6,500—arms control is being undermined and abandoned. Last August, U.S. officials withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in reaction to evidence of Russia’s noncompliance. In May, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty (which has allowed unarmed observation flights, in order to enhance transparency). The sole remaining U.S.-Russian agreement is New START, which limits the aggregate number of strategic offensive arms in each arsenal—and if that is not renewed in early 2021, it too will collapse. Meanwhile, new technologies are presenting their own challenges to long-standing thinking about escalation.